Are All Calories The Same?

Hello there seekers of nutritional freedom and leanness. In this article I want to take a look at a paradigm that we’ve all heard hundreds of times before. At school, in the media, from government and nutritional institutions, from our doctors, and even in the local cafe or restaurant when you overhear people chatting about the latest dieting revelation or why their friend is as fat as ever.

…….”A calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it comes from…..blah blah”

In my last article, I discussed why diets fail, and that obesity is a multi-factorial disease, and that there are many facets involved. In this article I’m going to consider the question: Are all calories the same? . Now, to pre-appease the naysayers, I’m NOT talking about the burning of foodstuffs in a ‘bomb calorimeter’ in a laboratory. If you need to know more about this, and about calories in general, this Wiki article covers it.

Nah, ultimately we are (or should be) interested in whether the calorie count of a food on the nutrition label of a packet is all you need to care about when you eat the stuff?

To me, and a lot of the research seems to agree, that simplistic view of what defines a calorie is fine and dandy for the evil scientist in his lab, with bubbling test tubes, mad laughter and a desire to make us eat more of his food-like substances. Not quite as relevant once we’ve stuffed it down our throats and our bodies start to do their stuff. I’m going to argue that all calories are not created equal, and it’s about time that this misaligned perception is kicked into the long grass, once and for all.

With this concept firmly implanted in the heads of, well, just about EVERYONE, we are led to the belief that if a calorie really is just a calorie, regardless of source, then just eating less of the mo-fos, or burning more of them with increased activity is going to get us lean, lithe, nimble and healthy.

Problem with that oversimplification of how the body balances energy intake and expenditure, is that that it’s just not true. Yeah, yeah, I know, the first law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system total energy remains constant so can neither be produced or destroyed, it just changes into something else.

Rudolf Clausius had a fair point, based on Isaac Newton’s ‘discovery’ of thermodynamcis a lot earlier, but trying to shoehorn it into an organism as complex as the human body creates a range of problem, problems that are doing nothing to further the general populace’s understanding of what to eat, what not to eat

The widely held view, one that permeates every section of society is that if you eat it and don’t burn it, it’s gonna get stored, most likely on your ass or love handles 🙁 This viewpoint puts the focus on HOW MUCH you put down your pie-hole, and HOW MUCH activity you do to burn those ingested calories. So, your weight gain is down to YOU. You’re a glutton or a sloth, usually both. According to this conventional view, the truth about weight gain and obesity is…


So, you’re to blame..great! Your personal choices have put you in this oft desperate position, where your health is impacted, your life expectancy is likely shortened, your peers look at you with disdain, people nudge each other in the street, and you feel like a piece of useless crap.

The Centre For Disease Control (CDC) have well documented information that over the past 25 years or so, caloric intake in Americans has risen, to the tune of a 187 cal/day increase for males, and a 335 cal/day increase for the ladies. Want to read more about that? CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE STUDY

This is attributed to the huge increase in the availability of sugary drinks, junk food, and a reduction in the consumption of fruit and veggies. This drop in consumption of those foods has also led to a decrease in the intake of dietary fibre (I’m English, that IS the way you spell it 🙂 )

On the energy expenditure side, video games, an increasingly sedentary work life (for some), more TV time are purported to be responsible for the the ‘energy expenditure’ deficit that is fuelling the increase in obesity.

The unfortunate result of this brainwashing is that society now views obesity as a ‘personal responsibility’ thing, and those folks that are afflicted with the condition buy into it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s the prevailing view. Everyone from government heads, health service media outlets, the press, fitness magazines, your family doctor, the guy down the street, your kid’s teachers, and even your spouse believes it. So they must be right, and you MUST surely be a greedy, lazy fat pig right? But, at least you’re in control. If it’s personal choice, that empowers you to at some point, even after dozens of failures, you’ll find the holy grail and regain your body, health, and self esteem.

Obesity is considered a lifestyle problem, not a multi-faceted, complicated endocrinological one. As far as the big business around weight loss and dieting goes, that’s a good thing. They want to keep it that way.

I mean, if weight gain and obesity are proven to be a condition of biochemistry rather than personal choice, how are these businesses going to continue to sell you shakes, memberships, real replacements, fat blocking pills, low fat and low calorie food choices, gym memberships that you use for a month and have to pay for for the rest of the year?

I live in the UK, and Slimmer’s World is big over here. Posters for support groups adorn the shop windows and lamp posts, people almost see it as a charity, but it’s a business for sure. And they are making a barrow load of money out of offering dreams for people that are never delivered for most. Even the people that lose a huge amount of weight often regain it all within a couple of years.

I’ve created calorie restricted programs for people myself, setting daily calories and macros, with good results in many cases. Because people are crying out for a quick solution to their problem, I joined the bandwagon of nutrition and weight loss consultants who gave them what they wanted. I never did it with malice, or with a ‘get their money quick’ motivation. I truly wanted to help, and I did, but it always played on my mind. How were they doing a year later…or two.

I, like many (most?) other nutrition coaches was focusing on the wrong thing. Quick results, satisfied customers, gone and almost forgotten.

Diet books adorn the Amazon Kindle Store, most written by people just trying to cash in on the fact that overweight people are desperate for a solution. Many of those books are ghost written by someone else, just pulling information via Google searches and rewriting it, making a quick buck, then onto the next book. Of course, there are some awesome books written on the subject, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Then there is the politically correct ‘fat is fab’ people, telling us how you can be fat and healthy, love your body, feel great. I’m all for having a more genuine representation of society in magazines, on the catwalks, in movies, and YES, being obese or overweight shouldn’t instil self hatred, but for many, it does, and it’s hardly surprising considering the the perceptions I’ve discussed above.

But 70-80% of obese people are metabolically sick, so although self-love is awesome, we can’t get away from the fact that being obese is not healthy….for the vast majority of people.

Back to calories after that brief excursion.

Not All Calories Are Equal When Consumed

The Thermic Effect Of Feeding (TEF)

When we eat food, or body uses energy to process it from it’s eaten form into something that can be actually used for fuel, for rebuilding you, or for storage.

The 3 macronutrients, protein, carbohydrate and fat have quite different effects on the body when consumed. Fat of course, with 9 calories per gram, needs little processing. It can be shuttled off to be used as fuel or in the rebuilding of cell membranes or a myriad other functions, or stored in fat cells as is. The energy cost of doing this is small, around 2-3% of the energy consumed. So 100 calories of fat will use around 2-3 calories to process and store it.

Protein on the other hand cause the body to use quite a bit of energy to break it down into amino acids to be used within the body. The thermic effect of eating a protein meal is in the region of 20-30%, so for every 10 calories of protein you eat, your net energy intake is only 70-80 calories

Carbs can be processed in a couple of ways, either directly for fuel or stored as glycogen in the liver or muscles, or turned into fat for storage. The TEF of storing as fat is over 20%, but much lower for using as fuel or storing as glycogen, in the region of 5-6%.

This alone shows that a calorie ingested already has a different effect on the body, due to how it has to be metabolised. This doesn’t take into account the effect the food has on blood sugar and insulin levels, a topic I’ll be discussing in another article.

If all calories were created equally, and whatever you ate was pretty irrelevant as long as energy balance was maintained, things would be a lot simpler. You’d do exercise to create an energy deficit, or you’d eat less, and weight loss would continue in a linear fashion for as long as you wanted. Fat blocking drugs would work like magic and obesity would be a distant memory.

But why doesn’t that happen. Why do people lose weight for a while and then plateau, or weight loss slows? And when they go back to eating the calories they were eating before the diet do they regain weight at such a pace?

Well, it’s because the body is not stupid, and the over-simplification of ‘calories in vs calories out’ holds little water when it comes to the complex organism that is the human body. The body is smart. When energy intake is reduced, the body rapidly reduces energy expenditure to balance expenditure with intake. It’s really not so surprising is it? That an organism built for survival through lean times and time of abundance would have some feedback mechanism to protect itself?

And further to this. The effect that calories from different sources have on the body is different. A calorie of olive oil or coconut oil has a different metabolic effect on the body to a calorie of highly processed, inflammatory seed oil. The first two have valuable properties that heal and nourish the body, the latter causes inflammation which harms the body.

A calorie of carbohydrate from a sweet potato, carrots, leafy green vegetables or some legumes will have a profoundly different metabolic effect on the body than a calorie of Pepsi or table sugar. Agree…or not? The first are consumed along with the fibre that they contain and provide useful nutrients to the body., the latter are full of fructose which has a profoundly different effect, being metabolized to fat in the liver for the most part, contributing to fatty liver disease and insulin resistance in the liver. I’m not saying the occasional sugary beverage is going to do that, the poison is in the dose, but we are consuming more and more of these empty calories that are contributing hugely towards the rise in obesity.

So, I think it would be fair to say, that a calorie burned in a laboratory to allow for a caloric number to be assigned to it is fair enough, even though once you consume it, the number is kinda irrelevant, and a calorie burned by the body, from dietary fat, starch, or from stored sources of energy, could also be a calorie burned and understood in quite a simplistic and verifiable way. It’s the bit between where it goes into your mouth and gets stored as energy that throws up the conundrum. The quality of the food we consume defines how our body metabolises it and it’s desire to burn it or store it. If we conclude this to be a reasonable assumption based on many long term studies on calorie reduction (remember the Women’s Dietary Modification Trial I talked about earlier, just one of many) then our food choices are imperative if we want to improve our health, our body composition and give our bodies what it wants and need.

The obesity epidemic began around 1977 when the McGovern report was released, which dictated the US (and the ultimately, the rest of the Western world’s thinking on nutrition). Dietary carbohydrate is the only macronutrient that has increased in the USA over the last 40 years, fat consumption fell, protein consumption stayed fairly static, but the nature of the carbs we ate changed dramatically, as cheap sources of sugar appeared and tempted the ‘food and drink’ manufacturers to , including high fructose corn syrup, a very poor use of corn indeed me feels.


As a slight side note, it’s really interesting to look at the comparison of obesity rates by country. The OECD released a report on this back in 2012, I’ve linked to it HERE

Although the stats show that in almost all the countries lists, the prevalence of being ‘overweight’ is steadily rising, the incidence of obesity (BMI of 30 and above) is really wide. Korea, it’s only around 4% of the population (similar in Japan although it’s not listed in the graphs) whereas in the USA it’s been rising like a mad thing since the late 70’s, and was sitting close to 35% in 2012, with over 60% of the population being deemed as overweight. Those are some frightening statistics right there!

Obesity rate are on the rise in Japan, but it certainly appears that, although the Japanese (and the Koreans too) have subsisted on a traditional diet that includes a lot of processed starch (I’m talking about white rice), that doesn’t seem to have affected them in the way that our highly refined carbohydrates, sugary drinks, HFCS ‘enhanced’ diet have driven our belt sizes up continuously. No country seems immune, but the countries whose cultures have kept such foodstuffs off the menu for the longest are obviously doing something right.

So if we at least consider that assigning simplistic notions of energy intake to the energy equation is potentially a little bit silly, then how about the calories out bit? Surely that’s a done deal. Well, not so much, because even if once a calorie is stored we can call it ‘just a calorie’ it’s impossible to persuade the body that if you burn an extra 3500 of those bad boys with additional activity, then you’re sure to lose a pound of the the fat stuff. Let’s discuss that in the next article.

We all need to know if weight loss is all about calories (I think you might know my view) and I sincerely hope that this article at least enlivens the sceptic in you, and leads you to look into the question, ‘Are all calories the same?’

I’d really love to hear your views on this. Please leave a constructive comment at the bottom of this article, I love to hear your views. And if you’d like to get a free book on intermittent fasting, and get updates as I post new material, sign up to my newsletter HERE.[/fusion_text]

15 thoughts on “Are All Calories The Same?

  1. Super interesting article! I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and the idea of “net calories” isn’t something I’ve run across before. Thank you for information!

  2. Hey there. I’m not sure I have either, but the idea makes sense, the caloric input that you actually have to use after the food has been metabolised in the body. It’s certainly super relevant for proteins with a high metabolic requirement to break them down.

    Thanks for the reply, appreciate your time to read this and leave a comment.

  3. Thanks Daniel, appreciate the comment. I’m striving to add useful stuff that helps people out, and also makes them re-evaluate the ideas that have been drummed into them for all their lives. Something just isn’t working, and I don’t think it’s that people are greedy and lazy. The advice we have been fed is just plain wrong, or hideously lacking in detail for the most part.

    Thanks again, keep an eye for new posts as I write them.

  4. Great article Steve. Very interesting indeed. I’m trying to get back on the wagon now that I’ve had my baby and am struggling. This article is great in helping with motivation to stick to set macros.

    • Thanks Erryn, great to hear from you 🙂 To be honest, I’m really moving away from the whole counting calories thing, it works, but I’m much more interested in LONG TERM solutions that will make people healthy, happy, and leaner through food choices and their perception of food in general. Breaking the connections with highly processed foods it my goal now.

      Good luck with the baby and everything, feel free to drop me an email, be great to hear from you

  5. Great read. Many valuable points covered.
    Have you considered using a weekly graph (a visual example, of course) of what we intake vs what we spend?
    That would make sense to a lot of readers.
    Also, what encouraging (snackable) substitutes would you suggest for breaking the sugar habit. How onto earth do you teach someone to stop being hungry (ravenously starving) 24/7?
    Lastly, for those who have to be Gluten Free and/or on Candida lifestyle. Do you have any suggestions.

    • Hi there.

      It’s actually impossible to produce a graph, because although we can quite easily monitor energy intake, energy expenditure, both in terms of metabolic rate plus energy expended during activity fluctuates a lot, and certainly drops as one reduces calorie intake. Everyone is different too, the energy YOU expend walking for 30 mins will be very different to me, or someone else.

      I actually think that snacks are a real part of the issue, snacking has been something that has really only started over the last 30 years or so with the convenience of food availability, and that in itself (depending on snack composition) is making a big impact on insulin resistance. Imagine, 3 good sized meals a day. Insulin rises on eating, then drops off below a base level, and your cells are able to release stored fat for energy.

      Contrast that with carby snacks in between meals, as most people do now, insulin never drops off enough for fat release from cells, the cells become insulin resistant so higher insulin levels are needed. Insulin blocks Leptin from reaching the hypothalamus, so satiety signalling is not working properly, and we find ourselves in a right old mess.

      So, if you have to snack a little, nuts, eggs are a better option. Gluten free, it’s simple, just eat non-processed foods, as we should all be doing anyway 🙂

      Hope this helps, and thanks so much for the comment.


  6. Kudos. Great article. I am new to the this 16:8 lifestyle, But I can see where it will allow you to eat “some” of those foods that will keep you continuing on the right path. I agree the body is such a complex machine, it seems hard to get it to fall in line at times. Its as if it has its own brain or something. Enjoying your website and have email it to others in my family who are contemplating 16:8

    • Thanks Michael.

      I think that including treat type foods can certainly help some people to maintain their lifestyle change, but for others, those foods like chocolate, ice cream etc, can often lead to a breakdown of their eating plan and binging. People just need to be honest with themselves. If they can’t just eat one bowl of ice cream, probably best to eat none 🙂

      Ultimately, treats have a place, but for me now, that might be once a month, or less! I just don’t feel the need for it, although I LOVE chocolate, ice cream and cake…big time 🙂

  7. Thanks for the great article. I only pay attention to calories ingested so that I can ensure that I don’t go too low and also so I can track my macros. Have been on a ketogenic diet (80/15/5) for almost 2 years now. Have done remarkably well, but still struggling to budge the last bit of excess fat, which of course, my body is most reluctant to part with. With hormonal issues to contend with as well, it’s been an interesting ride! The big thing though, is how great I’m feeling – haven’t felt this good since I was in my early 20’s. Am now in my 50’s. Have recently added intermittent fasting (aiming for 24 hour fasts at least every second day, but minimum of 16 hours daily) into my protocol and it’s certainly helping enormously in terms of cognitive ability, energy levels and mood stabilisation. Love your work – thanks for spreading the goodness that you do!

    • Hi there Lucrecia

      Thanks for the comment, You might be worth looking into some info on how long a ketogenic diet is optimal for. I know some people do it for a long long time, but, you might find that at least cycling your carbs could be helpful.

      On fasting. It’s great, good for increasing insulin sensitivity etc etc, but I tend to think that a 24 hour fast once or twice a week is enough to get those benefits, although I’ve had good success with daily fasting myself, at the moment, I’m finding 3 meals a day works well for me right now.

      You don’t mention where you are on your journey, as far as body composition goes, but I’d certainly not be afraid to mix things up a bit. I got to my leanest with carb cycling and 16:8 IF, problem was, 8 weeks in the binges started and I screwed it all up.

      I’m far more focused now on creating long term, sustainable strategies for people, that will enhance their lives forever, not just for a 12 week coaching program 🙂

      All the best


  8. So, it’s better to eat protein because it takes more energy to process it? Is that what you’re saying? I agree that a calorie is not just a calorie. I appreciate that! Too long people think, well, 100 calories of ice cream substituted for 100 of cooked egg is just the same 100 calories. Not so! They react differently in the body.
    I don’t snack unless, for instance, our dinner is going to be delayed and I’m hungry. A handful of nuts usually does the trick.
    I am counting calories, staying around 1300-1400 and averaging 35 net carbs. This is working to get me to my lowest weight so far and beyond.
    Thank you for all your research and sharing with us!

    • and additionally, forgot to answer the question, I’d probably opt for moderate protein and higher fat, cutting the processed carbs tends to be helpful for most overweight folks, but it’s important to be able to modify as required. Not that you’re eating any additional carbs at all by the sounds 🙂

  9. Hey Robin. Well, most of us should eat somewhat more protein, but it’s kinda dependent on what you are doing activity wise, your body composition goals etc. There is certainly a limit to how much protein is useful for actual rebuilding you, many bodybuilders eat far too much thinking that more is better. But to be honest, the thermic effect of eating an extra say, 25g of protein a day instead of fat or carbs is gonna be pretty small, you’d probably burn 30 cals processing that 100 cals of extra protein. But, if you are trying to build muscle, eating more is good, up to around 0.8g per pound of lean mass is generally considered adequate, but you could round things up and say 1g per pound of target bodyweight or similar.

    Congrats on your weight loss to date. Just beware that you may well find that in a relatively short timeframe 1300-1400 calories per day could become your new ‘normal’ and when you get off your diet and add in that deficit that you are currently in, rebound weight gain could be the result. This is what happens to almost all dieters over time, even if they have been uber successful with their diets.

    Anyhoo, sounds like you have a plan, so sincere good luck with it.

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